The ISBE’s anonymous survey reveals key differences in perceptions of freedom on campus

Idaho State Board of Education meeting
Screenshot from the Idaho State Board of Education meeting

The Idaho State Board of Education (ISBE) released the results from their November 2021 post-secondary education survey, which aimed to measure the climate around freedom of speech that exists on Idaho’s campuses.

The results revealed that a majority of students report positive experiences when it comes to expressing their individual values on campus, though some responses varied based on gender, age and political affiliation.

The anonymous survey was proposed over allegations from the 2021 legislative sessions that some students at Idaho’s public postsecondary institutions were being shamed for their personal beliefs.

Results for the survey were published in a dashboard on the ISBE website and discussed in a board meeting from Feb. 17, which showed a 16% participation rate.

“Rather than going for a representative population, we wanted to ensure that everyone who wanted to participate in this survey could,” said TJ Bliss, chief academic officer for the ISBE. “And we wanted to make sure we protected their identity.”

Considering that the data was limited and therefore not representative of the entire body of each school, Bliss emphasized the importance of looking at each institution’s data independently from others.

Idaho State Board of Education meeting
Screenshot from the Idaho State Board of Education meeting

“It is not appropriate, practically or statistically, to compare institutions with this data,” Bliss said.

The first part of the survey asked for demographic information such as age and political affiliation, and the rest focused on student experience with the topics of belonging, feeling valued, respected, pressured and feeling safe to express their beliefs.

According to the survey report, a “supermajority of students across all institutions and all levels” indicated positive experiences related to these values.

In that same section, it stated that a “sizable minority of students” reported at least occasionally having negative experiences, those of whom vary by political view, gender and age.

If a student indicated any level of feeling pressured, bullied or shamed, they had the option to clarify where within the university they felt that from.

The data from that dashboard shows that for most demographic categories, students reported feeling more pressure from their peers compared to university faculty.

“It’s another interesting finding, there are differences in the perceptions and the dynamics of where they’re feeling those sorts of things or reporting where they’re feeling that,” Bliss said.

This data contradicts the concerns raised in past legislative sessions over faculty allegedly pressuring students to adopt beliefs that they found offensive, which led to the suspension of UF 200 courses at Boise State University in the spring 2021 semester.

“A good proportion of the pressuring actually comes from peers, other students and not necessarily faculty,” said Kurt Liebich, the ISBE president. “I’m not sure that’s necessarily the perception that would exist in the legislature.”

More than half of respondents indicated they were unfamiliar with policies and safeguards in place at their university to protect their right to freedom of expression.

“The fact that over 50% of our students don’t know where to go or what to do if they feel pressured or bullied, to me, is a problem,” Liebich said.

Most of the response variations from the rest of the survey questions were based on differences in political affiliation, gender and age.

Students who identified their political views as “left” were more likely than the center to report not feeling pressured to affirm beliefs they found offensive and feeling safe expressing their personal beliefs on campus. The opposite was true of right-leaning students.

Another one of the more notable demographic divides came from a question that asked students to what extent they agreed with the following statement: “It is important to participate in courses and activities at my college or university that are designed specifically to enhance my understanding of others’ beliefs and viewpoints.”

While 66% of four-year undergraduate students who identified as having a left-leaning political ideology said they strongly agreed with the statement, only 35% of those with a right-leaning political ideology agreed.

“[The difference] is larger than we’d like, for sure. It’s worth noting and we want to dig into that and understand what’s going on as much as we can from the data.” Liebich said. “Your choice as a leader or as a board is ‘do you try to manage it or just let it happen?’”

In terms of next steps, some warn against the board taking action.

“I’d be careful about prescribing actionable steps, I actually think that would be a mistake,” said Bill Gilbert, audit committee chair for the ISBE. “They are the ones that are responsible for the culture on their campus, we are not.”

The survey can serve as a starting point for the different Idaho institutions to have these conversations and consider the factors impacting their student’s experiences, according to Liebich.

“The expectation is that they look at it through the lens of what are the specifics of the demographics on their campus, the specifics of what their own perception of their culture on that campus [is],” Liebich said.

Liebich proposed a new expectation for the institutions to occasionally meet with the board to discuss the culture on their campus.

“We want to be a place where tough conversations can happen, we can engage in spirited and intellectual debate but with a healthy measure of respect,” Liebich said.

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